Monday, November 02, 2009

Wealth in Massive Games (gedankenexperiment)

There has been a storm of concerned armchair economics gurus that has come out of the woodwork over the past few months. I've become steadily more angry at seeing people trot out tired old theories that show a deep misunderstanding of even the most basic facts about money and wealth.

You can learn more about economics by playing Alpha Centauri than by reading Marx.

But almost all games suffer from an oversimplified economic rule set. This is to avoid getting in the way of whatever the "real" gameplay is. I would like to turn that on its head and theorize a game about economics.

Here are the restrictions:

1) The theoretical game must be massively multiplayer (or massively singleplayer, a'la Spore).

2) It must contain interesting non-economic gameplay (typically, various kinds of killing).

3) The economic rules must emerge from simple fundamentals rather than by complex fiat (IE, no arbitrary money sinks, no specific "B happens if you raise taxes").

4) The game must contain zones, modes, or other variations that change the fundamental rules somewhat to highlight the different economic results that occur when rules change.

5) It must highlight the difference between MONEY and WEALTH.

All the examples I can think of are constructive, rather than the "static state" worlds of WoW or WoW, WoW, or maybe WoW. For example, my first instinct is a space empire game like Masters of Orion, but with far less focus on war and far more focus on the amount of time it takes to travel through space. By having specific resources obtained only from specific star systems, you would be able to stress the costs of shipping this product (or derivatives) all around the empire.

The game would require somewhat arbitrary use of fundamental materials to build products. For example, building an acropolis might require explicitly listed goods in addition to research, time, and labor. These are somewhat arbitrary sinks, but at least they make sense.

The game would also highlight the difference between a new economy and a mature economy as you expand and build up your planets. You could also have "low-traction" zones where travel happens faster, or low-fuel zones where you're forced to stick to light speed in order to make it economically viable...

You have any ideas?


Ellipsis said...

I do think that a good MMO economy has to be fairly constructive, because that's, in theory, what it means to have an economy grow - there's more of value in the system. Saving the world from monsters is a strange thing to base an economy off of, because even if you succeed, you merely averted destruction - how does an economy grow from that?

The other thing that you really need is a lot of diversity. If everyone is trying to offer the same service to each other, you don't get a very dynamic system.

Trouble is, progress and diversity can be hard to incorporate into a game - in the real world the progress part is continually ongoing because people are actually coming up with new ideas all the time, but in a game you'd have to plan out and design the elements that players can develop.

If you ignore things like graphics for a minute, maybe you could have a procedural, evolving economy in which players can accumulate "innovation" points (and capital) and use it to start new industries or develop new technologies. For instance, I could spend some to develop the "Quantum Tractor" which can be used on two farms at once (but requires an unusual fuel to operate). I can sell these to farmers and someone else can invent a hyperfuel for it.

Anyway, not sure how feasible that is, but it sounds fun to me.

Jaybot7 said...

Hot damn. I've always been curious about a designing a game which would be able to teach the player real economics and how it pertains to the international economy at large; without it being absolutely boring as hell. I think you may be on to something here. Of course, even if the game were designed well, packaging it and having it published would be a nightmare.

Craig Perko said...

Jaybot: They don't advertise WoW as a "level grinding simulation", so why would we advertise this as an "economics simulation"?

Ellipsis: It's a thorny issue. The reason MMORPGs don't allow the users to do shit is because a static world is A) easier to balance and B) doesn't punish casual players. That might be a very serious problem, which is why a massively single-player game might be a better solution. Hm.

Jaybot7 said...

Agree with you on the WoW side. I never said it was impossible, just nightmarish. Then again... the Oregon Trail is still a kick ass game today (I was playing it back on the Apple II), and that was somehow sold as a... damn, I don't know... a simulation? A survival game (without zombies)? There was good economics in the game too. If you don't choose the banker, your life will suck. :)

A massively single-player game :) That made my day.